Apologetical disputes between believers and unbelievers depend upon, include by reference, and arise out of conflicting epistemologies. Conflicts over the theory of knowledge in turn incorporate, function within, and must address differing world-and-life views (with divergent concepts of man as a knower), if they would be resolved. The bold defense of the faith offered by Van Til’s presuppositionalism is that the unbeliever’s worldview fails to provide an adequate or workable theory of knowledge in terms of which the non-Christian can intellectually challenge the truth of Christianity. His presuppositions preclude the unbeliever from making claims to know anything intelligible or meaningful.
The Christian worldview begins with the personal, self-sufficient, sovereign, and triune God, who created all things from nothing and made man to be His image. God knows all things, and directs all events by His wise, providential plan. Thus, all objects, properties, minds, events, general laws, and moral prescriptions are determined, controlled, and related to each other by the mind of the Lord. Whatever the Lord says is utterly truthful and unfailing in its purposes, and that includes every passage of the Old and New Testaments. Human behavior and reasoning have become immoral and futile, due to self-centered rebellion against God. Man is biased against and hostile to the Lord and His revelation, wishing to be his own ultimate authority (autonomous). He needs the redemptive work of God’s incarnate Son (as a prophet, priest, and king) and the regenerating work of God’s Holy Spirit to be saved from intellectual foolishness, moral guilt, and eternal damnation. Given this overall “picture” of God, the world, man, value, history, and salvation—the basic biblical world-and-life view—the Christian can give an account of the objectivity of truth; the mind’s correspondence to objects and other minds; the possibility of knowledge; the rational and empirical procedures by which we learn, test, and justify propositions; the possibility of our finite minds knowing universal, absolute, and prescriptive concepts and laws; the human tendency toward disagreement, prejudice, and irrationality, etc.
There is at base only one non-Christian worldview; logically speaking, it is the negation of the overall picture described above—the denial of some or all of the propositions used to summarize biblically based Christianity (e.g., the Trinity, creation, providence, sin, incarnation, redemption, regeneration). Most pointedly, every non-Christian philosophical position for granted that man, not God, must function with ultimate intellectual authority, being the measure or “reference point” for all that he believes to be true. As Van Til observed:
There are many schools of philosophy with which the college student has to make his acquaintance. The textbooks speak of some of them as objective and others as subjective. Some are spoken of as monistic and others as pluralistic. Some are said to be pantheistic and others deistic, some rationalist and others irrationalist. Recently we have existential, analytical and positivist systems of philosophy. But all these schools must be seen in the light of the analysis made of them in Scripture. The main question that can be asked about any system of thought is whether it is man-centered or God-centered. Does it make the Creator-Redeemer or the creature the final reference point in predication? If an answer to this question is found, then the problematics presented by the various schools of philosophy become [intelligible] to us.
The unbeliever, whoever he may be at whatever time or place, utilizes and develops a theory of knowledge that is controlled by his hostility to God. He takes his own mind as the autonomous, self-attesting authority for knowledge; his mind (or to some degree that of his fellow men) is the reference point and basic interpretive guide to anything that may be known. The unbeliever assumes his own freedom and personality, while admitting that the environment in which he lives is not personal. He presumes that man is innocent and unbiased in his thinking (not seeking to avoid the light out of shame and fear). He does not believe that he needs at the outset of his reasoning to take account of the existence of the triune God, of the creation of all things, of God’s providential control of every event, or of himself as created in God’s image and answerable to God in all that he does. (These things may perhaps, upon examination, be added to his worldview at a later point, he might say, but they cannot be necessary from the start.) In the non-Christian outlook, the space-time universe exists and is intelligible apart from God; whatever happens is random, and facts are not pre-interpreted, related, or controlled by a personal mind. Values stem from man himself or are somehow inherent in nature. The individual’s own mind thus provides the connections between himself, objects, events, or other minds—as well as contributing the (purely formal) principles or laws by which he thinks and evaluates and by which he orders and interprets his experience. If there is any divine revelation, his mind must first be satisfied as to its identity, credibility, and subsequent authority over him.
The generic non-Christian worldview is not, of course, propounded by unbelievers in such bare-bones fashion. There are a plethora of ways in which unregenerate minds have expressed these underlying assumptions. At the more detailed or enriched level of presentation, which is the usual mode of its communication, the unbelieving worldview appears in a vast array of variations on the themes mentioned here. The Platonic version of the unbelieving worldview differs from the Aristotelian version, as the Hegelian version stands out from the Kierkegaardian version of it, etc. There is good reason to study and compare the many philosophical viewpoints even while we recognize that the different schools are giving their own peculiar spin to the underlying non-Christian worldview. The specific weaknesses of one type of unbelieving philosophy are (usually) distinct in a number of ways from the particular weaknesses of other types. Nevertheless, as Van Til taught, at the most basic level there are only two philosophical viewpoints: “In trying to teach men Christian apologetics, and in that process briefly surveying the history of Western philosophy, a basic issue must be made between those who by grace believe and those who do not believe the story of the Bible.” Regardless of the variations, the generic worldview with which each unbeliever begins is fatally flawed when it comes to offering an account of the possibility or intelligibility of what we take as “knowing” anything.
The various schools of philosophy set forth by unbelievers cannot explain man’s personal and intellectual freedom in a mechanical world. They cannot provide for a reliable connection between the mind and its objects—or the mind and other minds. They cannot escape the egocentric predicament, subjectivism, and relativism. They would require the individual mind to know everything to be certain of anything, and then simultaneously plead the limitations, inescapable biases, and fallibility of the human mind. Van Til explained:
In all non-Christian forms of epistemology there is first the idea that to be understood a fact must be understood exhaustively. It must be reducible to a part of a system of timeless logic. But man himself and the facts of his experience are subject to change. How is he ever to find within himself an a priori resting point? He himself is on the move. The futile effort of Descartes stands out from the efforts of other non-Christian thinkers not because it is essentially different but only because it is more consistent. Every effort of man to find one spot that he can exhaustively understand either in the world of fact about him or in the world of experience within, is doomed to failure. If we do not with Calvin presuppose the self-contained God back of the self-conscious act of the knowing mind of man, we are doomed to be lost in a sea of endless and bottomless flux.
But granted that man could get started on the way to learning by experience on a non-Christian basis, he could add nothing new to what he already knows. There would be nothing new. If it was known it would no longer be new. As long as it was new it would be unknown. Thus the old dilemma that either man must know everything and he need ask no questions, or he knows nothing and therefore cannot ask questions, remains unsolved except on the basis of the Reformed Faith.
Non-Christians cannot give a philosophically adequate account of the universality and invariance of the laws of logic or the laws of morality—much less how the unchanging abstract laws or concepts could accurately reflect the completely different realm of constantly changing, brute, physical facts outside the mind. They fail to provide a justification for the scientific or inductive reasoning that is utilized in virtually everything we know and can communicate. The meaningfulness, communicability, and creativity of language are mutually inexplicable. Unbelievers cannot determine whether diversity and particulars in motion are to be emphasized or rather similarities and continuity found in unchanging principles. They cannot escape arbitrariness and inconsistency, cannot establish legitimate intellectual authority for what they say or believe, and cannot counter the skeptic effectively. In short, the unbelieving worldview renders personality, self-consciousness, mind, logic, science, and morality unintelligible. When unbelievers criticize the Christian faith, they have in themselves no cogent theory of knowledge in terms of which to formulate or advance their criticisms.
Throughout his writings at various points, Van Til would pick out one or another illustration of the underlying non-Christian worldview to make his point that unbelief represents an epistemological failure. He was bold to declare: “We believe that which is in the Bible to be the only defensible philosophical position. . . the only position that makes human predication intelligible.” And the history of autonomous thought bears this out: “We shall have to approach the matter of a Christian world-and-life view from an historical point of view. . . .[W]e are naturally persuaded that in history lies the best proof of our philosophy of human life.” As the history of philosophy illustrates repeatedly, given his worldview, the unbeliever cannot explain the possibility or account for the actuality of man’s knowing anything at all. In the reading selections below, we will sample some of Van Til’s discussions of this epistemological failure throughout the history of autonomous philosophy. These are valuable for their variation and details. Following them, we will consider a few of the more general lines of criticism that Van Til would address in a blanket fashion to any and all unbelieving worldviews and their theories of knowledge: the problem of brute (random) facts without meaning, the problem of continuity and contingency (a closed, yet open universe), the problem of relating logic to facts, the problem of phenomenalism (the mind knowing only itself, not the external world), and then—the critique for which Van Til is best remembered by his students—the “rational-irrational tension” that afflicts all unbelieving thought.
Every school of epistemology stumbles over how to relate formal or logical principles (continuity) to chance particulars or facts (contingency). Likewise, every variation of unregenerate philosophy evidences the tendencies of both rationalism and irrationalism in one form or another, taking the autonomous mind of man as the ultimate standard or authority regarding truth and knowledge, and yet admitting its unsuitability or inability to function as the final judge. Non-Christian philosophies always turn out to be an unstable mixture of arrogance and humility. The autonomous man is arrogant regarding the authority and competence of his rational ability to figure out what is real, how we should conduct ourselves, and what can be known; by his rational standards, he dismisses the truthfulness of Christianity (in one way or another). On the other hand, the autonomous man, living in a random universe that no mind can comprehend or fathom, must confess all humility that intellectual certainty is not available to anybody.
The modern man is in the first place a rationalist. All non-Christians are rationalists. As descendants of Adam, their covenant-breaking representative (Rom. 5:12), every man refuses to submit his mind in the way of obedience to the mind of God. He undertakes to interpret the nature of reality in terms of himself as the final reference point. But to be a rationalist man must also be an irrationalist. Man obviously cannot legislate by logic for reality. Unwilling to admit that God has determined the laws of reality, man, by implication, attributes all power to chance. As a rationalist he says that only that is possible which he can logically grasp in exhaustive fashion. As an irrationalist he says that since he cannot logically grasp the whole of reality, and really cannot legislate for existence by logic at all, it is chance that rules supreme. It is to this rationalist-irrationalist man that the gospel comes with its doctrine of creation and revelation, its doctrine of redemption through grace in Christ. It is quite impossible to challenge the modern man with the gospel of Christ unless this gospel of Christ be set in its widest possible setting. It is that which the Reformed faith tries to do.
On the one hand, the unbeliever will be a rationalist who is committed to the competence of the human mind, while on the other hand he will resort to an irrationalist mind-set that cannot find a secure starting point in a changing universe or escape the deadly challenge of skepticism. This tension manifests itself not simply as a philosophical quandary for the unbeliever, but also expresses itself in his intellectual attempts to repudiate the Christian faith. In this memorable summary of the would-be autonomous man’s declaration to the Christian, Van Til highlights the conflicting ration and irrational themes of unbelief: “Nobody knows anything for sure, but we know that you are wrong!”
ANCIENT IDEALISM: PLATO
In his doctrine of reminiscence as well as his doctrine of ideal identification of man with God through intuition, Plato laid great emphasis upon the principle of changeless unity. Man had himself to be participant in the principle in order to have unity in his experience. Accordingly, he tended to deny either the existence, or at least the real significance, of change. The world of “becoming” had only a quasi-existence and knowledge of it was only a quasi-knowledge. In man, however, there was a rational soul which was not part of this quasi-existent world of chance, but was participant in the divine.
Plato spoke much of the reality of that which is above man in the way of eternal truth. In order for man to exist and to know at all, he had to be essentially divine; that is, in his intellectual soul man had to be participant in the very being of the ideal world. The world of temporal reality was not, for Plato, the revelation of the self-contained God. If, therefore, he could prove that his worldview could make intelligible the nature of reality, thereby making the world understandable without reference to the Creator-Redeemer, he would have justified to himself and to his followers his covenant-breaking attitude.
As for Plato this [monistic assumption] may be observed first from the hard and fast distinction that he makes between the world of being that is wholly known and the world of non-being that is wholly unknown. For Plato any being that is really to exist must be eternal and changeless. Similarly any knowledge that really can be called knowledge must be changeless, comprehensive knowledge. It is in terms of these principles that Plato would explain the world of phenomena. This world is intermediate between the world of pure being that is wholly known and the world of pure non-being that is wholly unknown. The being that we see constitutes a sort of tension between pure being and pure non-being. So also the learning process constitutes a sort of tension between pure omniscience and pure ignorance.
Plato’s view of the relation of sensation and conceptual thought corresponds to this basic division between the worlds of pure being and pure non-being. The senses are said to deceive us. It is only by means of the intellect as inherently divine that man can know true being. The real philosopher bewails his contact with the world of non-being. He knows he has fallen from his heavenly home. He knows that he is real only to the extent that he is divine. He seeks to draw away from all contact with non-being. He seeks for identification with the “wholly Other,” which, for the moment, he can speak of only in negative terms. When Socrates speaks of the Good he can only say what it is not. The Ideal table is never seen on land or sea. Piety must be defined as beyond anything that gods or men may say about it. True definition needs for its criterion an all-inclusive, supra-divine as well as supra human, principle of continuity. Ultimate rationality is as much above God as above man.
The result is that for Plato, too, nature is revelational. But it is revelational as much of man as of God. To the extent that either of them is real, and known as real, he is wholly identical with the rational principle that is above both. On the other hand, as real and known in the rational principle, both are face to face with the world of non-being. And this world of non-being is as ultimate as the world of pure being. So God and man are wholly unknown to themselves. Reality as known to man is a cross between abstract timeless formal logic and equally abstract chance. Yet in it all the ideal pure rationality as pure being dominates the scene.
We have thus far been speaking of the beginnings of Greek philosophy. Under general heading it was necessary also to look at the questions of neutrality and evil. It remains now to look at the highest development of Greek thought as far as it has bearing upon our subject.
In order to reach our goal, it will not be essential that we review every one of the Greek philosophers in order to see what they have to say on the subject of epistemology. We are not interested in the historical development of Greek epistemology except insofar as it throws light on the highest spot reached by Plato and Aristotle. And of these two philosophers we shall consider Plato rather than, or at least more than, Aristotle. The reason for this is that we are chiefly interested in what the Greek genius has to say on the place of the human mind in the universe, and this may be more easily ascertained from a study of Plato than from a study of Aristotle. And even if we are mistaken on this point, it is of no great moment. No one will gainsay that a study of Plato gives a fair crosscut of Greek thought. . . . We hold that both Plato and Aristotle stood diametrically opposed to Christianity, and that it is out of the question to speak of Christianity as having developed out of either of their philosophies. This does not deny the fact that Greek thought in general and the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle in particular has been of great formal value to Christianity. Nor do we mean to intimate that Christianity has, in many of its exponents, not actually been influenced by the pagan motif. But the genius of Christianity is a reversal of the genius of the Greeks.
It is to Plato’s doctrine of the soul that we must turn to find what may be called the high-water mark of Greek epistemological speculation. In it we have before us the ripest fruits of Greek speculation on the place of man’s mind in the universe. . . .
Greek philosophy as a whole tends to depersonalization and abstraction. . . . It was characteristic of the genius of the Greek mind to run into abstractions. It is inherent in all apostate thought to think abstractly.
A third general remark to be made is that Greek thought in general was intellectualistic. The emotional and volitional aspects of man are given scant attention. The essence of the soul is found in the contemplation of the “Ideas.” Plato was firmly convinced that the world of sense is not the most real world. It has its reality, to be sure. But its reality was adequately known through the senses. The more real world was the world of Ideas, and that could not be known through the senses; it had to be known through contemplation by the mind.
It will be found upon careful scrutiny that all three of these characteristics just enumerated, (a) a tendency to identification of the human mind with the laws of the universe as a whole, (b) a tendency toward depersonalization and abstraction, and (c) a tendency toward intellectualism, will be found characteristic of all non- or anti-theistic thought. . . .
The form of the presentation here [in the Symposium] is metaphorical, but we can already see the direction in which Plato’s thought is moving. The true nature of man is his soul, and not his body. A dualism is developing. Moreover, the true nature of man is the intellect and not the sense. Only through the intellect can man come into contact with the universals, and these universal Ideas have more reality than the particulars of sense experience. Another dualism is developing. The true function of man’s soul is contemplation of the Ideas, and its highest destiny is separation from the world of sense in order to be wholly absorbed in the contemplation of the Ideas. . . .
In the Phaedo this line of argument is pursued in still more detail. True knowledge is of universals only, and it is the soul in its intellectual capacity that is fitted to come into contact with this world.
Still we must not draw this argument too sharply. Even in the Protagoras, an early dialogue, Plato has made Socrates admit that if virtue is teachable, there must be a stage of learning. And this could not be the case if there is too sharp a separation between the world of sense and the world of Ideas. In that case one either knows or does not know; one is either in contact with the Ideal world and therefore in possession of it as knowledge, or one is a poor earthworm and knows nothing at all. Some reality must be given to the world of sense inasmuch as learning seems to be possible. Perhaps the indwelling of the soul in the body is not altogether in vain. . . .
The nasty problem why there should be an incarnation of the ideas at all is not here discussed. . . . Even in Plato’s maturest thought as expressed in the Timaeus, there is only a faintest suggestion of the idea that it is perhaps the soul’s function to bring together two opposing forces in the universe, namely, spirit and matter. And this lack of any notion of reconciliation that at all approaches the Christian idea of the subject corroborates what was said above about the assumption on the part of the Greeks, that the mind of man is naturally sound. It is assumed that there is no reconciliation to be made between God and man. And, if there is any reconciliation to be made at all, it is the mind of man that must do the reconciling. . . . Instead of needing a Mediator, the mind of man sets itself up as mediator if there is to be any mediator at all. . . .
For all practical purposes [Plato’s] conception of time as “the moving image of eternity” amounts to saying that the eternal and the temporal are equally ultimate aspects of one general Reality. . . . According to Plato, time and eternity are equally underived. . . .
Plato was still willing to attribute some possible meaning to the myths of which the forefathers spoke. . . . Plato, of course, as a philosopher begins by assuming the human mind is capable of meeting the riddles of the universe, but that when man sees more deeply into the limitations of human thought he is willing to listen with some respect to those who claim to have had revelations from the gods. . . . There might possibly be something to these myths after all. . . .
So Plato’s chief argument is here that the soul partakes of the Idea of life and therefore is immortal. Soul is intimate relation with Ideas but is not itself an Idea. . . . Here we strike the heart of the matter. The Idea of life partakes of the general characteristics of all Ideas, namely, that it is eternal and self-existent. Now of the Idea of life the soul is a concrete manifestation or particularization. The soul “participates” in the Idea of life and is therefore underived. . . . [in which case] the notion of change is taken right into the realm of Ideas. . . .
In Plato’s thought man as such is, as it were, substituted for the second person in the Trinity. Man as ultimate is as God; only it is he that appears in the temporal sphere and seems to be no different from God. What the Chalcedon Creed confesses about the Theanthropos identified with the person of Christ, Plato confesses about the Theanthropos identified with generic man. For orthodox Christianity it is Christ who “somehow” combines the eternal and the temporal into a close union without intermixture. In the case of Plato’s thought it is man who “somehow” combines the eternal and the termporal by way of an admixture. . . .
Platonism does and Christianity does not admit a final mystery in its system. . . . Platonism on the other hand must maintain that the divine mind as well as the human mind is surrounded with a universe which neither of the two minds has penetrated or can penetrate. Hence mystery exists equally for God and man. . . .
But now we are to observe carefully that, according to Plato, altogether different laws obtain in the eternal world of Ideas than in the temporal world of sense. In the sense world there is nothing upon which one can depend. There is no telling but that things may turn into their very opposites. There is no underlying unity that controls and gives meaning to the diversity of the sense world. There is here an ultimate plurality without an equally ultimate unity. It was for this reason that there was no guarantee to be found in empirical reasoning for the immortality of the soul. But in the world of Ideas everything is different. There nothing changes. There we seem to meet with an ultimate unity without an equally ultimate diversity. The soul which partakes of the nature of the Idea of life also partakes of the nature of the unchangeability which is characteristic of the Idea of life, as well as of all other Ideas. Hence things can never change into their opposites. More than that, things can never change at all. In the world of Ideas, qualities are absolute.
To which of these two worlds, then, does the soul really belong? Surely it cannot belong to both, if the qualities of the Ideal world are summed up in complete unchangeability and the qualities of the sense world are summed up in complete changeability. On the other hand it is equally certain that the soul must belong to both worlds or there would be no unity in its thought.
Plato cannot escape this difficulty and he does not wish to do so. Hence he admits in the end that it might not be so foolish after all to listen to the ancients who claimed to have a revelation of the gods on the subject. . . .
Plato would at one time conceive of the Ideas as immovable, so that in incarnation would be impossible. Then again, seeing that incarnation was a fact notwithstanding its theoretical impossibility, he would hold that the eternal had entered into the temporal, so that there was no longer an essential difference between time and eternity. . . .
In the second place, Plato tried to find knowledge by seeking it in the Ideal world alone. But this attempt, too, he recognized to be a failure. There was, to begin with, trouble in the heavenly realm itself. There seemed to be a fundamental and underlying unity there in the Idea of the Good. That Idea seemed to rule as king over all the other Ideas. But the question was, by what right did the Idea of Good rule over all the others? Was it because the Idea of the Good was more ultimate? That was out of the question. The other Ideas were just as ultimate and at all derived from the Idea of the Good. That this is so can be noted from the fact that there were Ideas of mud and hair and filth; that is, there were Ideas of evil things as well as of good things. But since it was of the very nature of all Ideas to be unchangeable and to oppose their opposites, it would certainly be intolerable to contemplate the Idea of the Good as bringing forth the Idea of the Bad. This proves conclusively that there was for Plato a fundamental diversity as well as a fundamental unity in the world of Ideas. And this would offhand seem to be all to the good, inasmuch as that is just what we are looking for in a true theory of knowledge. But the point is that this very fact that there was a fundamental evil as well as fundamental good proves that there was really no underlying and controlling unity in the world of Ideas after all.
On the other hand, one could never seek to account for the reality of the world of senses (sensuous world), if one would limit his knowledge to the standard of the Ideal world only. These could not be kept separate. And what was most important, Plato had the true insight that unless one could relate the two worlds in one comprehensive scheme of knowledge, one could not expect to anything about either of the two worlds. He felt that in the human soul the two worlds were somehow united, and one would have to understand this union to understand either the soul itself or anything else.
Plato assumed that it was possible for man to reason with the categories of eternity. This is in the nature of the case impossible for a time-conditioned creature such as man finds himself to be. Hence if he cannot reason with any but temporal categories, his knowledge is useless. The only way then for man to have any knowledge of either temporal or eternal things is for God to think for us in eternal categories and reveal to us the Measure of truth we can fathom. Thus we hold that Christian theism is the only alternative to skepticism.
In other words, the doctrine of Ideas left the problem of the one and the many, and therefore that of creation, unsolved. If the Ideal world was itself an ultimate plurality, it could be of no service in an attempt to explain the plurality of the world we live in.
Still further, if the Ideas were to be divided there would be no end to this process. An Idea would be required for every participation of an Idea in a sensuous object. And this process would have to go on indefinitely. Tus knowledge would be face to face with an infinite regression.
In desperation, Plato asks himself whether we may think that the Ideas are no more than our thoughts, that is, only subjective. But he finds that this offers no escape. If in such a case the Ideas were to remain in contact with the world of sense and have meaning for it, we would have to conclude that all our thoughts about reality is merely subjective, that is, that there is nothing more to reality than our subjective thought. Thus knowledge would be reduced to an illusion.
On the other hand, if Ideas are no more than thoughts, we might think of them as not having penetrated [or covered] the whole of reality, in order thus to save ourselves from subjectivism. But in that case there would be an area of reality totally unknown to anyone. And yet this area might have some influence upon the reality that we seem to have knowledge of. Hence we would not even have knowledge of that of which we thought we had knowledge. We would once more be face to face with an infinite regress.
The final conclusion drawn from this renewed investigation of the theory of Ideas is that the fact of knowledge cannot be explained with it. And the reason for this was that the logic employed throughout was too abstract and exclusive. It was impossible to get to a set of immovable qualities to explain anything in an inherently moving body such as the temporal universe was.
In our criticism of this Platonic logic it is not imperative that we discuss the question to what extent Plato thought this attempt at a solution of the problem of knowledge was successful. We may say that Plato felt the problem of knowledge to be unsolved even after this modification of the doctrine of Ideas. He practically says that much when he makes the statement that not all forms will intermingle with all forms. If all forms intermingled with all forms, there would once more be a completely colorless mass. In that case it would be difficult to make any statement about reality as it would be if all things were immovable as the world of Ideas were formerly thought of as immovable. In either case we would be at the place where the Megarians were, who said that all things were One, and concluded that predication was consequently impossible. And then we would be face to face with the question whether this One were to be thought of as temporal or as eternal. If as eternal, then the whole of temporal reality remained unaccounted for. If as temporal, we could not help but think of an ultimate plurality. Thus an ultimate plurality would mean the same thing as ultimate unity. And this amounts to saying once more that our predication as a whole is without meaning.
Plato insisted that the Idea of evil was as original as the Idea of the Good. He also insisted that the Idea of plurality was as original as the Idea of unity. And more than that, he insisted that the Idea of time was as fundamental as the Idea of eternity. This amounted to saying that the Idea of time is as eternal as the Idea of eternity itself. Or it amounts to saying that the Idea of eternity is as temporal as the Idea of temporality. All of which comes to a complete confusion and stultification of thought. Plato cannot escape the criticism of the third man. If there must be an Idea of man to explain the Socrates who walked in Athens, there must be once more an Idea of the participation of Socrates in the Idea of Socrates, and so on ad infinitum. Plato himself clearly saw this difficulty when he criticized his first and second positions. He has in no way escaped these difficulties in his third position. The Neoplatonists demonstrated this fact when they tried to work out this platonic principle with respect to the Mediator. When they tried to find a Mediator that was to be an intermixture between the unapproachable Eternal and the Temporal they had to continue making more Mediators all the time.
All antitheistic thought has to face the third man argument because all antitheistic thought is based upon abstract reasoning.
ANCIENT EMPIRICISM: ARISTOTLE
In a non-Christian scheme of thought abstract universals and particulars stand over against one another in an unreconcilable fashion. Such was the case in Plato’s philosophy. Aristotle sought to remedy the situation by teaching that the universals are present in the particulars. But he failed to get genuine contact between them, inasmuch as for him the lowest universal (infima species), was, after all, a supposed abstraction from particulars. Hence the particulars that were presupposed were bare particulars, having no manner of contact with universality. And, if they should, per impossible, have contact with universality, they would lose their individuality.
As over against Plato, Aristotle contends that we must not look for rationality as a principle wholly beyond the things we see. Universals are to be found within particulars. All our troubles come from looking for the one apart from the other. We must, to be sure, think of pure form at the one end and of pure matter at the other end of our experience. But whatever we actually know consists of pure form and pure matter in correlativity with one another. Whenever we would speak of Socrates, we must not look for some exhaustive description of him by means of reference to an Idea that is “wholly beyond.” Socrates is numerically distinct from Callias because of pure potentiality or matter. Rational explanation must be satisfied with classification. [And that my friend, is why I despise Aristotleanism! – D.A.] The definition of Socrates as a numerical individual is but an instance of a class. Socrates may weigh two hundred pounds and Callias may weigh one hundred pounds. When I meet Socrates downtown he may knock me down; when I meet Callias there I may knock him down. But all this is “accidental.” None of the perceptual characteristics of Socrates, not even his snub-nosedness, belong to the Socrates that I define. By means of the primacy of my intellect I know Socrates as he is, forever the same, no matter what may “accidentally” happen to him. And what is true of Socrates is true of all other things.
Aristotle’s philosophy, then, as over against that of Plato, stresses the correlativity of abstract rationality and pure Chance. Aristotle takes Plato’s worlds of pure being and pure non-being and insists that they shall recognize a need of one another. Neither Plato nor Aristotle speaks of limiting concepts in the sense that modern philosophers use this term. Yet both Plato and Aristotle in effect use such limiting concepts, and Aristotle more so than Plato.
Thus, in contradistinction from Parmenides, Aristotle holds that being is not all of one kind; it is inherently various and hierarchical. At the bottom of the ladder is pure matter or potentiality. At the top of the ladder is pure form. But we never meet with either pure form or pure matter in actual experience. Reality as we see it is always composite. The matter in it contributes the individuating, and the form in it, the universalizing, element. Thus Aristotle thinks that he can do justice to individuality and universality alike.
The relation of Aristotle to his predecessors is therefore very similar to that of Kant to the empiricist, Hume, and the rationalist, Leibniz. Aristotle’s position may, we think, not unfairly be said to be a sort of pre-phenomenalist phenomenalism. Of course Aristotle’s position is not modern; it is realistic, not critical. Our contention is that he takes the first important step in the direction of modern phenomenalism, and that there was nowhere else that anyone, who wanted to maintain the non-Christian concept of the autonomy of man, could go. The autonomous man must on the one hand seek to explain reality exhaustively; he must hold that unless he does so, he has not explained it at all. By definition, he has no Creator-Redeemer Mind back of his own mind. On the other hand, the autonomous man must hold that any diversity that exists is independent of God.
It should be noted that Aristotle himself never separated sharply between the passive and active intellect in man. He was indeed anxious to develop realism, the reality of facts and their true existence apart from the activity of the human mind with respect to them. In Aristotleianism God is pure active intellect. He is pure act. Man’s mentality shares in the nature of the divine activity. It is only on the basis of this sharing in the divine activity that abstraction from the sensible world, or the making of generalizations, so essential to the Aristotelian scheme, can be effected. The intellect of man abstracts the intelligible species that are said to be found in the facts that surround him. All certain knowledge is exclusively of universals. The intellect cannot deal with sensible facts otherwise than in terms of concepts. But facts are not concepts; they are individuations of concepts. Matter as such, pure matter as opposed to pure Act, is non-rational and cannot be the object of intellectual knowledge. It is the species that exist in the facts of sense that are said to be discovered by the intellect, and this discover is not merely a passive something. No non-Christian can finally escape the virtual identification of the human mind with the divine mind. So Aristotle, in thinking of the human mind as discovering the intelligible species in the things, is virtually attributing the same powers to the human mind that he attributes to the divine mind. The active mind of man is ideally identical with the active mind which is God.
What this position really amounts to is that man can by these self-evident principles interpret reality correctly without taking God into consideration from the outset.
This position is, to be sure, not the same as that of Parmenides, or even that of Plato. For convenience we may say that whereas Parmenides wanted to use the law of contradiction positively, Aristotle wanted to use it more in the way modern philosophy uses it – negatively. We do not say that he was doing what Kant did when he formalized and subjectivized universality entirely. Aristotle was still a realist and not critical in the modern Kantian sense of the term. But he was working in the direction of Criticism. He was frankly allowing that there was a reality beyond that which can be conceptualized by man. But he was also saying that for any such reality to be known by man, it had to lose its uniqueness and be subject to the classification of formal logic.
The essential point, then, about the human mind as active, in the way Aristotle conceived of it, is that it is virtually taken out of its temporal conditions. The intellect of man is absolutized. Its ultimately legislative character is taken for granted. When it is compelled to admit that there is anything in reality that is beyond its control, it assumes that this something can have no determinative significance for the knowledge that man has.
The Thomistic notion of the mind of man as potentially participating in the mind of God, leads to an impersonal principle that is purely formal, and as such is correlative to brute factual material of a non-rational sort. It follows that it is only by abstraction from individuality that the facts can be known. The whole scheme of the philosophy of nature is made into a “Chain of Being” idea, fitted into a pattern of ever-increasing universality. Inasmuch as anything is higher in the scale of being than something else, it is to that extent less individual. All knowledge is of universals. And, as we already observed, it is the mind conceived of as ultimate and as correlative to these facts that has to abstract from particularity in order to know them.
The point we are now most concerned to make here is that the position of Aristotle and Thomas is essentially no more realistic than is any form of modern idealism. The pure intelligible essences of Thomistic philosophy are virtually intellectual constructs. If they did exist, they would be eternal and unchangeable and as such destructive of the Christian teaching about history.
MODERN RATIONALISM AND EMPIRICISM
If the “facts” of scientific knowledge had, each and all of them, characteristics of their own prior to their being known by man, they would, argues Kant, be forever unknowable.
The rationalists before Kant attempted to know such facts, but in the process of knowing them, reduced their individuality or uniqueness to blank identity. For Spinoza the “facts” simply had to be what the intellect of man, using the laws of logic, and especially the law of contradiction, said they must be. Accordingly, for Spinoza, the order and connection of things is said to be identical with the order and connection of thought. Similarly, Leibniz aimed at finding the individuality of facts by means of complete description.
According to these rationalists, therefore there was not and could not be anything new in science.
[The Continental rationalists were Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz. They maintained that there are self-evident truths from which we can deduce with certainty (taking mathematics as their model or method) substantive conclusions about reality. Spinoza came to the conclusion that the laws of physics are implicative relations (under the attribute of spatial extension), reflecting the rational deductions of our minds, which are only in confused ways (at the level of sense perception) personally unique; at the level of pure thought, all minds are but one. Leibniz sought to protect the reality of individuals, arguing that what physics studies is actually a continuum of infinitely small units or centers of psychic activity (“monads”), which differ from each other not physically, but in terms of different levels of thought (a unity of inner consciousness and awareness), but which all mirror the whole universe of monads. The “dream-philosophy” speculations of the rationalists were intellectually abhorrent to the British empiricists: Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. According to them, there are no innate ideas; the mind starts out as a “blank tablet,” which passively receives sense impressions. Only concrete particulars exist – which can be known (with probability) by means of observation. Given this empirical approach, Locke argued that ultimate realities (the individuals that combine various properties) or “substances” could not be known, even though they exist. Berkeley argued against material substance (as an abstract idea that is unperceived), and Hume eventually argued against even mental substance (arguing that the mind is but a “bundle of perceptions”). Neither school of thought could make rationality and individual identity mutually intelligible, nor could either escape sliding into skepticism.]
Yet the very idea of science presupposes that genuinely new facts are discovered and that in being discovered they are not lost in a net of abstract logical relations but really add to a fund of existing knowledge. If the rationalists were right, logic itself would be reduced to an eternal changeless principle of identity. All facts would be wholly known by abstract thought thinking itself. Thus not only would there be no facts not wholly known but the idea of the “wholly known” would become an abstract contentless principle. Logic itself would become meaningless. There would be no longer any process of reasoning; such a process would be wholly absorbed in identity.
The empiricist also believed in facts that had characteristics in themselves, prior to their being known in terms of relations between them and in terms of their relation to the one who knows them. Moreover, the empiricists saw what happened to these facts in the hands of angry rationalists. To keep the facts and their individuality from being swallowed up by logic, the empiricist proposed to bring the facts into relation with one another by means of induction rather than deduction. To make sure that logic would do no damage to the individuality of space-time facts, John Locke, the father of empiricism, insisted that the mind is a tabula rasa. The mind simply receives and therefore does not destroy the uniqueness of the facts as it brings them together. The objectivity of knowledge is thus guaranteed, because mind receives the facts just as they are.
However, the troubles of empiricism appeared clearly when its most brilliant exponent, David Hume, insisted that in receiving facts the mind is so passive, that its “concepts” are but faint replicas of its “percepts.” This was evidence for Hume of the fact that the mind has no organizing power at all. Even if all the facts were brought into the mind in the forms of concepts they would still be utterly unrelated. It would be as though the human mind, like a modern Noah’s ark, had gathered together all facts which the womb of chance has produced in the past and would produce in the future, only to realize that the concept of the ark is itself nothing but the faint replica of a percept. Thus all facts would still be not partially but wholly hidden.
One step more needs to be taken in our analysis of rationalism and empiricism. If the rationalists were not to defeat their own purposes by being wholly successful, i.e., in attaining the realization of their ideal of exhaustive reduction of all space-time factuality to a Parmenidean notion of abstract identity, then they would have to fall back on the idea of an unknown and unknowable realm of facts, in which each differs from all other facts by characteristics wholly unknowable. This would apply both to the supposed objects and to the supposed subjects of knowledge. If each of the objects of knowledge were to retain its identity, it would have to be impervious to other objects and to the mind of any knower. Similarly if the mind of the individual knower were not to be absorbed in advance by the Universal Mind, it would have to be wholly unaffectable by other, equally impervious, individual minds, and wholly inexplicable by any supposed universal mind.
The empiricists must fall back on the notion of the facts as being wholly and exhaustively known and reduced to one block of identity. Otherwise they would defeat themselves by being too successful in their attempt to attain absolute objectivity. The mind of the knower, the subject of knowledge, is said to be purely passive instead of creative, and the objects of knowledge are said to exist independently of the subject of knowledge. Without this rationalist notion of a logic that swallows up all facts, the empiricists could not explain how they could identify one fact in distinction from any other fact. The post-Kantian idealist critics of empiricism have pressed this point by saying that there is no possibility of counting without the presupposition of an absolute system of truth.
The rationalistic view, exhibited at its highest and best by Leibniz, represents the idea of univocal reasoning in its first modern garb. By means of refined mathematical technique, Leibniz hopes to reach that for which the ancients strove in vain, namely, individuation by complete description. God stands for the idea of pure mathematics by means of which all reality may be described as seen at a glance. All historical facts are essentially reducible to the timeless equations of mathematical formulae. Such is the nature and consequence of his ontological proof for the existence of God. There could be no revelation of God to man on such a basis. How could God tell man anything that he was not able eventually to discover by means of the differential calculus? God becomes wholly revealed to man, but with the result that he is no longer God.
In opposition to the position of Leibniz, the rationalist, stands that of Hume, the skeptic. Concepts, he argued, are but faint replicas of sensations, and the laws of association by which we relate these concepts are psychological rather than logical in character. As Leibniz sought to be wholly univocal, so Hume south to be wholly equivocal in his reasoning. As in the philosophy of Leibniz God lost his individuality in order to become wholly known, so in the philosophy of Hume God maintained his individuality but remained wholly unknown.
To be sure, neither Leibniz nor Hume was able to carry on his position to its logical conclusion. Leibniz paid tribute to brute fact as Hume paid tribute to abstract logic. Leibniz maintained the necessity of finite facts and therefore of evil, lest his universal should be reduced to the blank identity of Parmenides, lest he should have all knowledge of a being that is interchangeable with non-being. Hume, on his part, virtually makes universal negative propositions covering all objective possibility. To make sure that no God such as is found in the Westminster Confession, a God who controls all things by the counsel of his will, would speak to him, Hume had virtually to assert that such a God cannot possibly exist and that there cannot at any point in the past or future be any evidence of such a God. So Leibniz, the rationalist, was an irrationalist and Hume, the irrationalist, was a rationalist. It is impossible to be the one without also being the other.
RESULTANT SKEPTICISM: HUME
Basic to all of Hume’s opposition to Christianity and to theism is his conception of knowledge as derived from the senses. His objections to miracles as well as his objections to natural religion are based upon his theory of knowledge. He marched right up to the citadel of his opponents in order to attack them there.
“All the perceptions of the human mind resolve themselves into two distinct kinds, which I shall call impressions and ideas. The difference betwixt these consists in the degrees of force and liveliness, with which they strike upon the mind, and make their way into our thought or consciousness. Those perceptions, which enter with the most force and violence, we may name impressions: and under this name I comprehend all our sensations, passions, and emotions, as they make their first appearance in the soul. By ideas I mean the faint images of these in the thinking and reasoning; such, as, for instance, are all the perceptions excited by the present discourse, excepting the immediate pleasure or uneasiness it may occasion.”
In this opening sentence of the Treatise we have the gist of the matter. All knowledge comes from sensation; that is basic to Hume’s theory of knowledge. We have no ideas which are not faint copies of previous impressions. Ideas, as copies of sensations, Hume argues, are discrete. He is in entire agreement with Berkeley that “all general ideas are nothing but particular ones, annexed to a certain term.” He holds that Berkeley’s “discovery” or this point is “one of the most valuable discoveries that has been made of late years in the republic of leters”.
The far-reaching significance of Hume’s point of view appears at a glance. Since all knowledge is of sensation there is no a priori reasoning. To be sure, in the field of algebra, when we are merely concerned with the manipulation of figures, we may speak of a priori knowledge, but when we pretend to deal with factual knowledge, a priori reasoning is taboo.
But what of a posteriori reasoning such as Butler has employed in his Analogy? Granted we are willing to forego the certainty and universality that a priori reasoning was supposed to bring, can we not at least depend upon probability? May we not reasonably expect that the “constitution and course of nature” will continue in the future as it has in the past? Such questions, though not asked by Hume with direct reference to Butler, are yet asked by him with respect to the type of argument used by Butler.
The answer to such questions, says Hume, depends upon the nature of the connection between our various ideas, One particular idea simply recalls another particular idea. It is thus that we obtain our general ideas. There is no necessary connection between our various particular ideas. There is no systematic relation between them because there is no systematic relation between our sensations.
It will be observed that in this way there is no basis for the notion of cause and effect. There is no “impression, which produces an idea of such prodigious consequence”. Yet all ideas must come from impressions. My impressions are simply of contiguity and succession. Hence my ideas too are merely of contiguity and succession.
“Tho’ the mind in its reasonings from causes or effects carries its view beyond those objects, which it sees or remembers, it must never lose sight of them entirely, nor reason merely upon its own ideas, without some mixture of impressions, or at least of ideas of the memory, which are equivalent to impressions. When we infer effects from causes, we must establish the existence of these causes; which we have only two ways of doing, either by an immediate perception of our memory or sense, or by an inference from other causes; which causes again we must ascertain in the same manner, either by a prescription of our memory or sense, or by an inference from other causes; either by a persistent impression, or by an inference from their causes, and so on, till we arrive at some object, which we see or remember. ‘Tis impossible for us to carry on our inferences in infinitum; and the only thing that can stop them is an impression of the memory or sense, beyond which there is no room for doubt or enquiry.”
Absolutely all our reasoning about cause and effect goes back to sensation, and sensations are discrete. To this basic point Hume returns again and again.
“’Tis therefore by EXPERIENCE only, that we can infer the existence of one object from that of another. The nature of experience is this. We remember to have had frequent instances of the existence of one species of objects; and also remember, that the individuals of another species of contiguity and succession with regard to them. Thus we remember, to have seen that species of object we call flame, and to have felt that species of sensation we call heat. We likewise call to mind their constant conjunction in all past instances. Without any farther ceremony, we call the one cause and the other effect, and infer the existence of the one from that of the other. From the mere repetition of any past impression, even to infinity, there never will arise any new or original idea, such as that of a necessary connexion; and the number of impressions has in this case no more effect than if we confin’d ourselves to the one only.”
It is easy to sense the implication of all this for the argument of Butler. Butler holds that we may reasonably expect the course and constitution of nature to remain the same in the future as it has been in the past. Hume says that if we expect this it is because of custom only. There is simply no logical relation between the past and the future.
To see this point clearly we may follow Hume still further when he enters upon a discussion of probability. Continuing from the passage we have just quoted, Hume says:
“If reason determin’d us, it would proceed upon that principle, that instances, of which we have had no experience, and that the course of nature continues always uniformly the same. In order therefore to clear up this matter, let us consider all the arguments, upon which such a proposition may be supposed to be founded; and as these must be deriv’d either from knowledge or probability, let us cast our eye on each of these degrees of evidence, and see whether they afford any just conclusion of this nature.Our foregoing method of reasoning will easily convince us, that there can be no demonstrative arguments to prove, that those instances, of which we have had no experience, resemble those, of which we have had experience. We can at least conceive a change in the course of nature; which sufficiently proves, that such a change is not absolutely impossible. To form a clear idea of anything, is an undeniable argument for its possibility, and is alone a refutation of any pretended demonstration against it.Probability, as it discovers not the relations of ideas, consider’d as such, but only those objects, must in some respects be founded on the impressions of our memory and sense, and in some respects our ideas. Were there no mixture of ideas the action of the mind, in observing the relation, wou’d, properly speaking, be sensation, not reasoning. ‘Tis therefore necessary that in all probable reasonings there be something present to the mind, either seen or remember’d, and that from this we infer something connected with it, which is not seen nor remember’d.The only connexion or relation of objects, which can lead us beyond the immediate impressions of our memory and sense, is that of cause and effect; and that because ‘tis the only one, on which we can found a just inference from one objet to another. The idea of cause and effect is deriv’d from experience, which informs us, that particular objects, in all past instances, have been constantly conjoin’d with each other. And as an object similar to one of these is suppos’d to be immediately present in its impression, we thence presume on the existence of one similar to its usual attendant. According to this account of things, which is, I think, in every point unquestionable, probability is founded on the presumption of a resemblance betwixt those objects, of which we have had experience, and those, of which we have had none; and therefore ‘tis impossible this presumption can arise from probability. The same principle cannot both be cause and effect of one another; and this is, perhaps, the only proposition concerning that relation, which is either intuitively or demonstratively certain.”
This passage deals with the central concept of Butler’s Analogy, namely, that of the presumption that the constitution and course of nature will be the same in the future as we have seen it to be in the past. Hume finds no justification for the presumption except in custom. It is important to note that his argument here, if sound, is as destructive of Butler’s reasoning as it is of a priori reasoning. To be sure, his argument appears to be primarily against the idea of a necessary connection of an a priori sort. Yet his argument is equally opposed to the idea of a presumptive rational connection of a probable sort. The whole point of Hume’s argument is that there is no rational presumption of any sort about future events happening in one way rather than in another. We may expect that they will, but if we do, we do so on non-rational grounds. Our reasoning is based upon past experience. Past experience is nothing but an accumulation of brute facts which have been observed as happening in a certain order. Why should not the events of the future be entirely different in nature from the events of the past?
Hume’s empiricism was far more critical and consistent than that of Butler. We proceed to see what happens to the conception of probability on the basis of Hume’s empiricism. If all knowledge I based upon experience, and experience is interpreted without the presupposition of the “Author of nature” as Hume claims it is, we cannot expect that one thing rather another will happen in the future. From the point of view of logic, one thing as well as another might take place in the future. But why is it then that we expect the course and constitution of nature to remain the same? “Wherein consists the difference betwixt incredulity and belief?” asks Hume. The answer is once more that it is in nothing but custom and feeling.
“Now as we call every thing CUSTOM, which proceeds from a past repetition, without any new reasoning or conclusion, we may establish it is a certain truth, that all the belief, which follows upon any present impression, is deriv’d solely from that origin.”
Custom gives vividness to an idea, and the vividness of the idea is the source of our belief in the existence of the object of the idea. “Thus all probably reasoning is nothing but a species of sensation. ‘Tis not solely in poetry and music, we must follow our taste and sentiment, but likewise in philosophy.”
Grant an infinite number of possibilities, to begin with, as an absolutely pure empiricism must presuppose, then there is an infinite number of improbabilities to cancel out every infinite number of probabilities. That is, there is no probability at all. [To put it simply, the notion of probability presupposes the uniformity of nature (i.e. the resemblance between events that we have experienced and events that we have not experienced), in which case probability cannot be the foundation for a belief in the uniformity of nature! This insight of Hume’s has major importance. When an apologist points out to an unbeliever that his naively empirical approach to knowledge renders scientific reasoning (relying as it does on causal or inductive principles – “the uniformity of nature”) unfounded, he will often thoughtlessly retort that, while we cannot be certain of uniformity, it is probably based on past experience. But as Hume noted, PROBABILITY ITSELF ASSUMES UNIFORMITY, and thus PROBABILITY CANNOT JUSTIFY BELIEF IN UNIFORMITY.] Such is Hume’s argument. Hume is right when he says again and again that “an entire indifference is essential to chance.” The idea of a law of chances is, strictly speaking, a contradiction in terms. It is to this position of total indifference with respect to the future that anyone embracing a pure empiricism is driven. By Hume’s argument Butler would be driven to accept a pure empiricism with the consequences now before us, or to accept the “Author of nature” as a real and effective principle of interpretation. [The devastating conclusion to which Hume’s consistent empiricism drove him was that we can have no rational basis for scientific knowledge, and therefore (given Hume’s chosen prejudice for such knowledge) all philosophy reduces to personal preferences (as in poetry and music). With this admission, unbelieving epistemology became a complete intellectual failure]
CRITICAL PHILOSOPHY: KANT